Have you ever stood on a hillside and watched a majestic bird gliding on the breeze? Or maybe you’ve seen one swoop down and grab an animal off the ground. Did you wonder what kind of bird you were observing? Aside from the crows that are very common in the Bay Area, most of those birds are raptors, and many of our local raptors are red-tailed hawks.
A raptor (in Latin it means “to seize”) is a bird that preys on smaller animals for food. That could mean anything from field mice to baby birds or snakes to gophers and rabbits. Raptors are adapted with strong feet with sharp talons to snatch animals off the ground, powerful eyesight to spot them from the air and sharp hooked beaks to help them eat their prey.
For more images of red-tailed hawks and other local birds by Peter Hart, visit Birds of Protected Lands.
Red-tailed hawks are beautiful animals with a great deal of variation in their markings. Still, once you know what to look for, you can identify them with greater ease.
This is not only one of the most populous raptor species in the Bay Area, they are also one of the most widespread in the U.S., including most of the country in their range. Each hawk maintains a territory of about two square miles, although it can be much smaller when they live in urban settings.
Red-tails prefer to live in woodland areas near open spaces, including pastures, grasslands and agricultural areas. There, they scan for prey using tall trees or other high perches. They have also adapted to live in more developed areas, hunting from buildings and urban trees.
Their keen eyesight is almost eight times better than human’s, making them able to see a mouse from 100 yards away! They swoop down to snatch their prey, carrying small animals to their perch or enjoying larger ones on the ground. They tend to pluck the feathers of birds before eating them and will often swallow small mammals they whole.
Mating rituals for these beautiful birds can be very dramatic. They begin looking for mates when they are about three years old. When they find a likely mate, both birds will fly in circles uttering horse cries, with the males swooping down to seize prey and pass it to the female in the air. They are also known to hook talons in flight and spiral toward the ground before releasing!
The pair works together to build a large flat nest in a tall, large diameter tree with a healthy canopy. If necessary, they can also nest in other locations accessible from above. These include cliff faces, transmission towers and nesting platforms provided by humans.
The female usually lays two or three eggs in April or May. It takes about 30 days for them to hatch. A newly hatched bird is called an “eyass,” and they are soon covered with white down. They will remain in the nest for as long as 48 days, by which time they are almost as large as their parents. Interestingly, their distinctive red tail feathers don’t appear until the young birds are two to three years old.
The hawks’ main predators are coyotes, bobcats, red foxes and racoons. Great horned owls also like to target the young in their nests.
Man-made obstacles account for much of these hawks’ mortality, including rat poison, which they ingest along with the rats in their diet. They are also at risk of illegal hunting and trapping (it is illegal to kill or catch a wild red-tailed hawk in California), collisions with vehicles and becoming ensnared in power lines.
Of course, we can’t guarantee where you’ll be able to see a hawk, but we have some suggestions of places you can try looking for them!
Wavecrest is a 1.5 mile flat trail along the coast surrounded by beautiful agricultural lands. It also happens to be a great place for bird watching and, depending on the time of year, you might also see migrating whales, harbor seals and pelicans. Leashed dogs are welcome and everyone should bring layers since the weather can be everything from cold and windy to sunny and warm.
Farther south, Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve south of San José is also a great place for birdwatching. It has multi-use trails for hikers, mountain bikers and pedestrians as well as interpretive signage along the Arrowhead Loop trail that give background on the historic Juan Bautista de Anza Trail. There are ADA accessible restrooms and picnic tables so bring your lunch while you look for hawks!
On the northeast side of San Jose sits Alum Rock Park, a city park in the foothills of the Diablo mountains. Not only does it provide plentiful opportunities for birding, but it has opportunities for hiking, picnicking and bike and horseback riding. There is a $6 per vehicle entry fee for this park and dogs are not allowed since the entire park is a wildlife sanctuary.
Truthfully, you can see red-tailed hawks all over the Bay Area, so grab your binoculars and see if you can find one!
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more